Dueling signs depicting opposing views of the Rock Island County Courthouse debate have appeared in Rock Island.
People wanting to save the historic courthouse have staked a sign on the corner of 15th Street and 3rd Avenue picturing the building in its glory days. The view is an alternative to a sign on the courthouse lawn depicting the three-story Justice Center Annex now under construction, with the existing courthouse gone, a grassy park plaza in its place.
The Rock Island Preservation Society installed the glory-days sign to drum up support for saving the building that opened in 1897 and that the county is considering demolishing.
Members want to save the old courthouse for its historical value as well as because "the county needs the space," Diane Oestreich, the society's recording secretary, said.
The Justice Center Annex will house judicial functions, including courtrooms, the offices of the state's attorney and circuit clerk, judges' chambers and administrative offices. These areas in the current building had been judged health and safety hazards, which is why the annex is being built.
But that still leaves the Recorder's Office, which is bulging at the seams, Juvenile Court Services and all the documents that are stored in the basement of the existing building, Oestreich said.
The society would like to see the courthouse renovated for those functions. In addition, several other county functions in other places, including the Rock Island County Office Building, might be consolidated into a renovated courthouse, she said.
"Three contractors (Estes, Russell and Valley construction companies) have looked at the building, and none of them said it wasn't doable," Oestreich said of courthouse renovation. Costs have been pegged at anywhere from $14 million to $20 million.
Preservationists know the county doesn't have that kind of money, but they believe "the money could be found if there is a will," Oestreich said. "What we found (at a public presentation earlier this month) is that people don't object to higher taxes if it's for the courthouse," she said.
A scenario might be to mothball the courthouse for a reasonable amount of time, such as a year, she said. Meantime, a for-profit company would be engaged to pull together financing, including federal and possibly state historic tax credits, to pay for the renovation.
This company would do the renovation, then lease the space back to the county on a lease-to-own basis using money generated by a courthouse-specific tax, such as a one-half or three-fourths percent increase in the sales tax, Oestreich said.
A sales tax increase would need voter approval but, again, society members think a tax with an expiration date specifically for the courthouse has a chance of passing, Oestreich said.
"If the building is demolished too hastily, the community will miss this opportunity and lose an important piece of local history," according to a news release.
The latest county discussion on the courthouse was a week ago when the county board's committee on governance, health and administration failed to approve an intergovernmental agreement on the future of the building, preventing the proposal from being advanced to Wednesday' county board committee-of-the-whole meeting.
That proposal would have had the Rock Island County Public Building Commission retaining funds to pay for the demolition of the courthouse and the installation of the park-like setting in its place.